Google's Linux fork may not trouble Microsoft

Google is calling on the open-source community to help with its Chrome OS Linux fork, but such efforts are unlikely to trouble Microsoft.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
4 min read

It was just a matter of time before Google stopped pretending it doesn't compete with Microsoft and introduce its own operating system to go head-to-head against Microsoft. As reported by CNET, Google has now lifted the covers on its Google Chrome OS, "an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks."

That's funny. We already have several of those, each of them running the same code powering Chrome OS, as Glyn Moody reminds us. They're called Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Moblin, and...you get the point.

More specifically, while Google claims Chrome OS looks to the future of a Web-friendly OS, this is precisely the future that Canonical's Ubuntu has been envisioning and actively courting. It's therefore not surprising that Ubuntu enthusiasts like Renai LeMay ask why Google apparently elected to "splinter the Linux community" rather than "leverage the stellar work already carried out by [Ubuntu]."

Why indeed?

Well, because Google clearly wants to pull a Microsoft. Yes, Google has stated that "[a]ll web-based applications will automatically work," and not just on Chrome OS, as doing otherwise would be suicide, but you can bet that Google will fine-tune its own applications to privilege their performance on its OS...just as Microsoft has. At least Microsoft doesn't ask the open-source community to help it in such work.

Google may well be focused on simply creating a "delivery mechanism for a web browser," but as Gunnar Hellekson opines, there are far more efficient ways to do so. Hellekson goes on:

Google keeps dropping these code bombs on the [open-source] community -- that's a really expensive way to produce something nobody wants to help with.

In short, don't expect the open-source community to do Google's work for it, work that Google may not be particularly well-suited to do.

All that said, I'm glad to see more competition in operating systems, and think Google will do a lot to help push the state of the art, just as it has in browsers. But let's be clear: Google's announcement is neither cause for widespread elation (open-source world) or fear (Redmond). As ZDNet's Dennis Howlett explains:

Where's the secret sauce here other than the Google halo effect painted over with the browser and duly hyped by the SV Google lovers?...[T]he reality is no one outside the Silicon Valley tech bubble gives a damn what operating system and browser they use. Many are still mandated to use IE6 as a colleague reminded me the other day. Simply having Google wave its hand is not going to sway hard nosed enterprise buyers - even if it is free. Which neatly brings me to another point.

Google has said it wants to get help from the open source community. I'll bet they do. All those drivers that [TechCrunch editor Michael] Arrington dismisses with a wave of the hand WILL need to be served. If he thinks I'm wrong then a quick call to any of the major banks' CTO offices should put him straight on that one....Even...when ChromeOS does emerge it will be a v1.0. No enterprise buyer I know will go within a country mile of committing its users' kit to something at that level of maturity.

In other words, Chrome OS has a long way to go before we see it hit significant volume of adoption, no matter how good it ends up being, and particularly enterprise adoption.

As for how good it will be, Robin Yellow, a friend who works in IT for a Fortune 100 company, notes that "Google are a bunch of young people in California who ride Segways and wear their pajamas to work," which may not be the ideal bunch to create software that enterprises of the world want and will trust. That's a concern shared by Red Hat's director of product management, Rich Sharples, who worries: "What Linux needs is a true consumer-grade desktop - the Google experience still seems to be aimed at the tech savvy."

Google opted to "build" its own Linux distribution, rather than use a wildly popular, Web-focused OS like Ubuntu. It is doing so with a team that lacks Microsoft or Apple's flair for enterprise and consumer, respectively, and has asked for the open-source community to make up the difference.

Good luck with that. Open source does many things exceptionally well. End-user design doesn't tend to be one of them.

I respect Google's technological savvy. I respect even more the development chops of the open-source community. Unfortunately, I don't think either is a near-term, credible developer of a consumer-friendly OS that will motivate people to want to move from their Macs or Windows machines to adopt Google Chrome OS.

That's why I think CNET's Ina Fried should change her headline from "To challenge Google, Microsoft might want to think Apple," to "To challenge Microsoft, Google might want to think Apple." Google is the challenger, and the reality is that exceptional design, not merely technology advances, is what will drive consumer change.

If Google needs a reminder of this, it need look no farther than Android, its open-source alternative to Apple's iPhone OS, which is long on technology and short on success, precisely because it fails to understand and allure the consumer.

If Google really wants to leverage the power of open source and outdo Microsoft and Apple in ease of use, perhaps it should find a way to broaden the base of the open-source development community to include average users so that your mom, my brother, etc. can provide feedback on how to improve ease-of-use of Chrome OS. Now that would be innovative.

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